Alabama's Nick Saban continues push for nine-game SEC schedule
DESTIN, Fla. -- Nick Saban, that noted man of the people, arrived Tuesday at the SEC's spring meetings with a message that will likely shame his fellow coaches into calling the Alabama coach nasty names only under their breath instead of out in public. Saban wants the SEC to adopt a schedule featuring nine conference games. Not for Alabama's benefit, mind you.
"The biggest thing that I think we all need to do in some of these decisions that we're making about who we play and what we do is say 'What about the fans?'" the coach of three of the past four national champions said. "One of these days, they're going to quit coming to the games because they're going to stay home and watch it on TV. Then everybody's going to say 'Why aren't you coming to the games?' 'Well, if you played somebody good, we'd come to the game.'"
Saban makes a great point, one that none of his fellow coaches wish to acknowledge because they are too worried about their jobs. Alabama has displayed a statue of Saban outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium for three years now, so Saban is pretty secure. The coming playoff plus the beauty of a 60-inch HD screen and dealer's choice of food and beverage should help eliminate body-bag out-of-conference games, but most coaches will cling to those guaranteed wins until they are pried away. One way to get rid of at least one of those games per school is to legislate an extra conference game, and that's just what Saban believes the SEC should do. "If you look at it through a straw and how it affects you and you're self-absorbed about it, nobody's going to be for it," Saban said. "I shouldn't be for it. We've got a better chance to be more successful if we don't do it. But I think it's best for the game and for the league. That's what I think. So I'm trying to look at it from 1,000 feet."
Needless to say, Saban expects resistance from his brethren. "I'm absolutely in the minority," Saban said. "No question about it."
On Tuesday, the other SEC coaches with an opinion supported keeping the eight-game schedule. Those coaches may disagree on the administration of that schedule -- LSU's Les Miles wants to eliminate the fixed cross-division opponent, for example -- but they like the flexibility of having four nonconference games. "I'm going to be a coach like everybody else and be in favor of eight," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. Said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin: "Eight games. Eight games. There's no other discussion."
Saban isn't exactly being as magnanimous as he sounds. First, he sees the writing on the wall. With ESPN launching the SEC Network in 2014, the network will want to increase the quality of its inventory. One way to do that is to ask athletic directors and presidents -- whose departments will receive even more massive checks thanks to ESPN -- to add a ninth conference game. Second, Saban hopes the selection committee in the new playoff will consider the quality of wins instead of just choosing the first four undefeated or one-loss teams. If the committee operates as it is supposed to, that will be the case. And if that happens, leagues that play eight conference games and schedule mostly creampuffs out of conference will get downgraded in the strength of schedule component. The Big 12 and Pac-12 -- which already play nine-game conference schedules -- and the Big Ten -- which will move to a nine-game schedule in 2016 -- might gain a built-in advantage.
"You talk about trying to create some kind of strength of schedule [component]," Saban said. "That's difficult to do when we have six teams at the end of the season last year in the top 10 and other teams that are vying to get into the [BCS] championship game. Then to think the team that loses [the SEC] championship game wouldn't have gotten in the final four if we had one. That's not taking strength of schedule into consideration at all. It's taking how many games you lose into consideration. But I think if we all played more good opponents, you could lose more games and still have a chance to get recognized as being a good team."
To this point, ESPN.com's Chris Low reminded Saban that had Ohio State not been banned by the NCAA from postseason play last year, the Buckeyes probably would have played Notre Dame for the national title instead of Alabama. "That's exactly right," Saban said. "And how well would they have done had they have played the six teams that were ranked in the top 10? Would they have beat them all? Would they beat three of them? And I think they have a really good team." It should be noted here that Alabama played only three of the SEC's top-10 teams (LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia) last season and went 2-1. Three schools (LSU, Florida and Missouri) played four of the top-10 schools. None played five or six.
Saban wants teams in the big five conferences to play at least 10 games per year against teams from the big five conferences. That, he believes, would give the committee a more even basis for comparison. Of course, the coaches who would prefer to stay at eight conference games have a ready answer for this. "Everybody's talking about strength of schedule and the new playoff model. Wonderful," Franklin said. "If you think you've got a team that's in position to play for the national title, go schedule the four toughest out-of-conference games in the country. Go do that."
Franklin and Bielema also have a solution they believe would satisfy the league's television partners. "You don't have to go to nine games to make sure we have more really good games," Franklin said. "What you do is you force everybody to spread their out-of-conference games out. You can't open the season with three out-of-conference games and then hold one for late. There have to be three SEC vs. SEC games Week 1. There have to be three SEC vs. SEC games Week 2. And do that the whole year. Now, that's going to allow the SEC Network or ESPN to make sure there are great games the entire year." Bielema agrees completely. He said he suggested the same thing to the Big Ten three years ago while he was the head coach at Wisconsin. "I told them I'd gladly play Ohio State the first week of the year," Bielema said, "just to get that wow factor."
(A note on the SEC Network and nine conference games: The assumption is that ESPN would want more conference games to improve the quality of its inventory. This certainly would not improve the quantity of inventory. Adding a ninth conference game would actually reduce ESPN's inventory because it would put seven SEC schools on the road for an additional week. Since most SEC schools schedule mostly home payday games out of conference, the eight-game schedule, in practice, would probably produce five or six more home games that ESPN could broadcast. In an age when a 3 a.m. replay of the Central Florida-Ball State Beef O' Brady's Bowl nets 610,000 viewers, quantity might be more important than quality.)
What would really wow those of us who watch the games instead of coach them would be a group of teams eschewing the creampuff games for only quality opponents. Saban's team has Virginia Tech on this year's schedule and Michigan State, Wisconsin and West Virginia on future schedules. But unlike Florida (Florida State), Georgia (Georgia Tech), South Carolina (Clemson) and Kentucky (Louisville), Alabama doesn't have a quality in-state, out-of-conference rival occupying an annual space on its slate. So if Saban really wants to put his schedule where his mouth is, he'll keep pushing for the nine-game schedule and make sure the Crimson Tide never schedule teams such as Chattanooga or Georgia State beyond this season.
Hopefully, the selection committee would respect and reward such a move. That might convince other schools to load up their schedules. If they do that, they'll take more losses. But we, the viewers, would walk away winners.